Last Words: Be Sure to Choose Wisely

The elderly Lady Nancy Astor, the first female member of the British House of Commons, awoke during her last illness to find that her family was assembled around her bed. Clever to the end, she said, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?”

Most of us associate the idea of last words with the solemn and quotable pronouncements of great men and women, not the sassy commentary of the once beautiful English politician pictured above. Here is something more typical: John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in uttering “Thomas Jefferson still survives” as he (Adams) lay dying.

What he did not know in the pre-electronic year of 1826, was that Jefferson had predeceased him by a few hours. Nor did either of them appear to reflect on the irony that these founding fathers both expired on July 4th, precisely 50 years after the Declaration of Independence that they both signed and Jefferson wrote.

On a less ironic note, those of us in Chicago might have heard of Giuseppe Zangara, an anarchist, who took aim at President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as he and the Mayor of Chicago shook hands in Miami’s Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. The bullet hit Mayor Anton Cermak, who reportedly said to FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak died soon after and is memorialized to this day by a Chicago street that bears his name.

There are other kinds of last words, of course. And though most of us probably won’t plan out what to say in advance, I think you will agree that you could do worse than follow the example of Ernesto Giulini, an Italian timber salesman born in the 19th century. He gathered his family around his death-bed, including musician-son Carlo Maria, to remind them that the word “love” — “amore” — should guide their thought and conduct throughout their lives. And one can only imagine how many times the words “love” and “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the very end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”

A rather more wry approach to imminent mortality is attributed to Voltaire. Asked by a priest to renounce Satan, he reportedly uttered: “Now, now my good man — this is not the time for making enemies.”

As Voltaire’s comments suggest, timing is everything and it is best to consider carefully what you want to be remembered for — and by whom. Last words from or to our parents tend to linger in the memory of those who survive, sometimes because of what was said, sometimes because of what wasn’t. Too many people — including some of my ex-patients — lament never having heard the words “I love you” from a parent at the time of his death or any time before.

We are often cautioned to part from loved ones on a high note, not a dissonant one, lest someone be left with the recollection and pain of a final disagreement, or the regret of causing an injury in what proves to be the last possible moment. Nearly all of us would avoid cruelty if we only knew when that would be. Usually we don’t. The dead may not care, but those surviving surely do.

Two unfortunate examples from my clinical practice come to mind in this regard. One woman, whose mother had died many years before, had difficulty in shaking her mom’s last minute assertion, “You’re an ass, Jenny (not her real name).” It is not the only such example I can recall hearing from one or another of my patients. But the all-time cake-taker, the grand prize winner in an imaginary “Hall of Shame” of ill-timed and venomously expressed invective, are the words of a rebellious teenager to his severely taxed father.

A long history of mutual destructiveness typified their relationship. It seems that the pater familias was inept and self-interested in raising his son, and the son repaid his parent’s cruelty and clumsiness with as much drug use and petty crime as he could muster. Nor did it help that the family was under financial pressure and that the two adults of the home were a badly matched, fractious pair.

The father had only recently sustained a heart attack when the school reported to him and his wife that the son had once again been suspended. The “mother-of-all” shouting matches ensued between the middle-aged man and his first-born disappointment. And then, the last words: “You’re going to kill me.” And the reply, “I don’t care.”

Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead of a second cardiac arrest. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing argument that his death would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger, it is easy to imagine a lasting sense of guilt in the son.

That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents, well before they check out of this mortal coil. Choosing to say, “I know what you did (even if you deny it or justify it) and I won’t let you do it any more” is sometimes perfectly appropriate. That act of self-assertion can be therapeutic, even though it is usually not essential.

You can also recover from childhood mistreatment without confronting the offender. Witness those individuals who do so when their abusive parents are already dead and therefore unavailable for real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that any continuing mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the by-now adult child, have to stop it: walk away, say “no,” or hang up the phone — whatever is required.

If, instead, you aim to change the offender, be prepared to be disappointed. Most won’t change or even admit that they did anything wrong. But if you wish to overcome your fear and master the situation, that mastery, at least, is possible. Nor should you usually hesitate for fear of “killing” your parent, as in the example I’ve given, especially if health issues aren’t present. That is the only story of its kind I’ve ever been told.

Better, though — so much better — to live among friends and relatives who live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. That way, even if there is no time for a formal goodbye, nothing will have been left unsaid: respect and affection will be well-known long before the end because of the way each treated the other. I’m told that the old Italian expression for this is “volersi bene” or “voler bene:” an untranslatable sentiment indicating that you cannot be happy without the happiness of the other. Yes, much better this way.

Perhaps it is no mistake that in English and German the words for life and love are so close. Change the word “live” by one letter and you have “love.” In German, change the word “leben” (to live) by adding one letter and you have “lieben” (to love). Not just last words or Ernesto Giulini’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.

Lady Astor (1909) by John Singer Sargent, is sourced from Wikipedia Commons. The photo of Carlo Maria Giulini comes from the front cover of the superb biography by Thomas Saler, published by University of Illinois Press. The present essay is a revised version of an earlier blog post from 2009: “Last Words: Be Careful What You Say.”

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

On the Elusiveness of Vindication (and How Special It is When It Happens)

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I suspect there is hardly anyone among us who has not hoped that the person who broke our heart would come back to us, see the light, apologize, and say:

You know what? I was wrong. I didn’t give you a chance. I should have. You deserved better treatment than you received from me. It was unfair of me to blame you as I did, not to see how good you are.  I hope that you will forgive me and we can start over.

Vindication can take a number of forms. It might involve being reinstated to a position you lost unfairly, being exonerated of a crime you were alleged to have (or convicted of having) committed, receiving a belated medal for acts of courage performed in combat, or having a parent apologize for abusive or neglectful mistreatment.

There is only one problem.

When the injury is great, these things almost never happen. Or, if they do, they come much too late. Think about the occasional news story that documents the exoneration of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned after years behind bars, now finally permitted to return to civilian life. Or the long-denied medal for heroic service to one’s country in an almost forgotten war, awarded to a man now aged or perhaps deceased, and therefore only a posthumous recipient of the honor.

Perhaps even rarer is the parent who apologizes for child abuse. First, such people rarely acknowledge the extent of what they have done. And, to the degree that there is any recognition or admission of  mistreatment of their child, it is nearly always minimized on the one hand, and justified on the other; justified, usually by the child’s alleged misbehavior or provocation.

By the time the parents in question are senior citizens, the fog of time and self-deception has clouded and distorted their memory. Moreover, were they to admit (even to themselves) what they had done, they would almost certainly be shattered and humbled by that self-awareness; and left with the fact that there would be no way to make up for the lost time and the pain they inflicted – not enough of a future available to redeem the sorry state of the past and remove the stain on their conscience.

Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that they do not admit their errors even when confronted – in effect cannot do so psychologically without jeopardizing their ability to live with any measure of equanimity.

My wife likes to say that her favorite punishment for such people would be one minute of self-awareness. Unfortunately, they are the least likely among us to achieve this kind of insight.

A useful book to read on the subject is Frauen by Alison Owings. Owings interviewed numerous German women who had lived through the period of the Third Reich. She observed the extent to which self-deception, rationalization, and denial were present as they looked back upon what they claimed they knew or witnessed (or didn’t know), and what they did or didn’t do in response to the mistreatment and murder of their Jewish neighbors by the Nazis.

Beyond the individual level, even nations have a problem admitting that wrong has been done in their name. Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century’s second decade, while Austria and France have historically skirted their participation in the Holocaust, preferring to be considered co-victims with other sufferers of Germany’s misdeeds.

And, it was not until 1988, that the United States formally apologized for the 1942 forced internment of Pacific Coast residents of the USA, solely because they were of Japanese decent, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of those people, 62% were US citizens.

While none of what I’ve described thus far permits a very optimistic take on human nature, I do want to relate one very beautiful story I heard from a former patient on this subject. It stands out because it demonstrates that obtaining personal vindication does happen every so often, and can produce any enormously healing experience for both parties involved. I’ve changed the circumstances of the story to disguise the identity of my patient, but I think you will get the idea.

The young woman in question was a high school volley ball player, a member of the school’s team. She was a junior and had played, usually as a starter, for most of the season. Her coach was a young woman as well, that is to say, a relatively new teacher, just shortly out of training.

Toward the end of the season, the student’s mother was to receive a special award from her workplace. Mom and dad both wanted their daughter to be at the dinner honoring the mom, and the young athlete wanted to be there as well. Unfortunately, the award ceremony conflicted with an important game for her team. She explained in advance to her coach that she would not be able to play in that game, but the coach was furious. Thereafter the coach repaid her absence by keeping her on the bench for most of the remainder of the season and treating her with disdain.

Although she liked volleyball, my future patient chose not to try-out for the team as a senior, expecting either to fail to make the roster chosen by the same coach; or, if permitted to be on the team, anticipating the same sort of mistreatment from her for another year. And so, the athlete’s high school athletic career ended prematurely.

This turn of events did not, however, destroy her love for the game. She continued to play in various park district leagues for many years. But the memory of being humiliated by the coach did not go away, nor of the lost senior year of competition that she might otherwise have enjoyed, playing a game she loved.

Perhaps 10 years after the incidents I’ve described, this woman was now my patient. And one day she told me that just the day before she had found herself in another volley ball contest against a new team. And, wouldn’t you know it, she saw that one of the opposing players was her old coach, now in her early to mid-thirties.

My patient recognized the coach, but hoped the recognition was not mutual. As the game progressed they soon enough were face-to-face across the net from each other. The coach said “hello,” calling her by name, and my patient replied in kind. Perhaps, she thought, that would be the end of their interaction.

At the end of the game, however, the coach came over to my patient. She asked if she could speak with her privately. They moved away from the other volleyball players to a place where they would not be overheard.

What the young woman’s ex-coach said went something like this:

I’ve thought about you for many years. I realize that what I did to you was very unfair. I took your decision not to play that game too personally. Of course, there was nothing wrong with your attending a dinner recognizing your mother. Who wouldn’t have? I was very young, but I should have known better than to treat you as badly as I did. I have felt guilty for years that I caused you pain and that I made it almost impossible for you to even think of trying-out for the senior team. I have been hoping to run into you all this time, so that I could say this. I’m so sorry.

As my patient related this story to me she was in tears, enormously touched by what the coach had said. The coach had given her closure for a painful part of her history and had done it with grace, courage, and integrity; taking full responsibility for injuring my patient. In so doing, I suspect the coach found relief too, because her former charge was an enormously likeable, decent, and forgiving person.

Everyone here was a winner.

As I said, the tale stands out for me because this kind of ending occurs so rarely. I suspect many of us have been the victims of similar hurts.

But, perhaps more importantly, some of us have probably inflicted comparable injuries on others.

Sometimes its worth reflecting on that — on one’s own failures and mistreatment of others.

You just might discover that like the coach, there is still an opportunity to put things right.

Of course, that is up to you.

The image above is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Growing Apart in Marriage

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic

In the black and white world of “absolutes,” life decisions are easy and obvious. But life as it is actually lived becomes a good deal more complex and muddy.

Here is an example:

Take a middle-aged man and wife, both approaching 50. They married young for many of the same reasons that other people do: physical attraction, the fun and good times of first love, and religious faith.

He had been groomed to work hard, build businesses, and accumulate wealth. She had been raised to refinement, home making, and the raising of children. Although both were college graduates, neither saw education at the time as more than the expected and required thing to do.

They both succeeded at their appointed tasks. He was often absent, working late to achieve and maintain the commercial success that he won. She had the major responsibility for raising the children and keeping the home a beautiful and congenial place in which to live.

Time passed. As the children left the home, she turned increasingly to her religious community for companionship and to the comfort provided by her faith, the one which he professed only nominally. She attended less to her physical well-being and gained weight. She was satisfied with her life, fulfilled and sustained by her belief in God and a like-minded group of co-religionists. This woman believed her relationship to her husband was satisfactory in terms that were typical of a long-married couple with grown children.

The man, on the other hand, became more interested in philanthropy and involved himself in charitable projects in which the wife was uninterested, simultaneously turned-off by the religious focus of his wife; indeed, by now he had become sceptical of organized religion, if not agnostic in his outlook. And, in the free time that his success afforded him, he worked-out and kept fit. As well as discovering a passion for history, philosophy, and science, he read voraciously for pleasure. The world of ideas had captured him.

The wife would encourage her husband to pray with her and to attend bible study groups, but his study of the history of religion made him doubt the authority of the documents that his wife accepted as the foundation of her world view. She was calmed by the certainty of her belief in God, while he had become a sceptic.

For her part, the increasing “intellectuality” of her husband and his decision to return to school for occasional classes left her untroubled, but unable to connect with his newly developed interests. His efforts to engage his wife in conversation about the things that he found intensely exciting found her indifferent, unable even to feign curiosity. That was simply not who she was.

And so they grew apart, although her life remained satisfactory to her, since she was not looking for the intellectual interaction that her husband wanted; or sex, for that matter, although she dutifully complied with his desire to continue a physical relationship with her. Other than the children and  the practical matters that occupy business partners or roommates, there wasn’t much depth of communication, and certainly no meeting of minds.

The woman did not sense the extent of her partner’s disaffection, his feeling of emptiness, or experience these feelings herself. She was close to the children while he had only business associates, no close friends. Nor was he one to talk about his feelings with her easily, so that his wife’s lack of intuition left her unaware of his loneliness and his desire to engage with someone who stimulated him in every sense.

Indeed, intensity was not what his wife wanted, not in bed, not in the world of ideas, not in thoughtful conversation about his feelings. When he did try to achieve these things with her, he was left even more disappointed than before.

Still attractive to women, with a strong personality, good looks, and the status conferred by money and power, he was tempted by younger, more admiring females who offered a sense of engagement that his wife seemed not to value. Still, the ethic of responsibility with which he was raised gave him pause, and he experienced a feeling of anticipatory guilt as he thought about the prospect of being unfaithful.

Whether this man acted on the temptation for an extra-marital affair or sought a divorce is not something I’d like to address quite yet. First, I want to raise some basic questions about relationships and responsibility:

1. Should this couple stay married for what might be another 40 or more years?

2. Is it possible that the idea of fidelity — the promise of a lifetime of faithfulness — made more sense when lives were shorter than they are today? The average lifespan of 50 at the turn of the 20th century has now been extended, at least in this country, to the mid-70s for men, and even longer for women.

3. How much should we be held accountable for a decision (to marry) made at a relatively early age that does not — cannot — fully anticipate the unpredictability of changes in personality, behavior, and beliefs that may occur in any life?

4. To what degree should one member of a marital couple sacrifice his or her happiness so that the other member remains satisfied and content?

So what happened?

The female was not interested in marital therapy (although she did give it a half-hearted effort), instead believing that it was her husband’s lack of religious faith that should be the target of intervention, and that only if he was properly devoted to God would he be relieved of his troubles. He eventually did have affairs, but when his wife found out he saw what injury he had done to her, felt guilty, and renounced infidelity (and the divorce he also contemplated) going forward.

The husband attempted to accept his wife’s limited interests in the things that stoked his imagination. In his mind he had already hurt her enough and therefore could not demand more.

This woman was now, once again, contented in her life, if ever mindful of her husband’s potential for further betrayal, of which she did not hesitate to remind him. The couple stayed in their rural suburban community away from the stimulus of the city that he craved, partly as his penance for harming her, and partly (she hoped) to keep him away from temptation. He did not again pursue other women or respond to their attempts to entice him.

Later, as his involvement in the world of business began to wind down he suffered a diminished and unsatisfactory life, relieved only by the self-stimulation of reading, his increased closeness to the children he had left for his wife to raise while he pursued the bread-winner role, the grandchildren who received the best of him (as his children had not), and the joy that came with being an active part of their small lives.

Most of us know at least one old friend, someone we hardly ever see anymore, with whom we somehow remain close. “We pick up wherever we left off, even though we haven’t seen each other in years,” or so we say in such situations. But we also know the experience of growing apart from a person we might even see fairly often.

In the first instance we have taken different routes in life, lived away from each other, but wound up in the same psychological, intellectual, and emotional place. In the second example, even though our external paths have not differed very much, our internal compasses led in different directions. We may be close by, but we are no longer close.

The relationship problems exemplified by the couple that I’ve described grew out of the divergence of these two human personalities as time passed. It would be easy to see one partner as evil and one as good, but I hope that it is clear that this situation was more complicated than that. The husband was not cruel. He did not wish to harm his wife and, in the end, was clearly leading the less happy life of the pair.

He had sought fulfillment by pursuing other women, at least temporarily. But did not his wife pursue her own self-interest, as well? It included a kind of marriage between herself and an institution of faith — the church and the people who made it up. That it did not involve sexual infidelity, however, does not mean that it had no effect on her husband. Indeed, he craved an intellectual, emotional, and physical exhilaration that his wife found unnecessary to her well-being.

It could be argued that in ultimately choosing fidelity to his wife, forsaking the kind of betrayal he had visited upon her earlier, the man had betrayed himself and the possibility of a satisfying companionship for himself ever after.

Life does not always easily correspond to neat categories of right and wrong, good and evil. Even the Ten Commandments are not seen as absolute by most Christians and Jews, at least those who justify killing in wartime or self-defense, or accept the State’s right to perform capital punishment.

Sometimes people who once matched well, change. Sometimes you can do nothing wrong and get an unfortunate result. Sometimes the choices that partners make prohibit mutual satisfaction because of who they are, not because one is good and one is bad. A relationship that works for both parties today may not continue to work indefinitely.

It is a bit unsettling to look at life this way.

But that is the way it looks from here.

The image above is American Gothic by Grant Wood, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Courage For the New Year

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Many of you, I suspect, have had a tough time over the holidays. Perhaps lonely, perhaps worried about what the future will bring. Many all over the world are yet unemployed or underemployed. Things have been difficult.

I offer you, therefore, an audio excerpt linked below, from a late 1941 speech given by Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during most of World War II.

I hope that it will provide some solice and some reason to believe that a better future is possible.

Things were particularly dark for England in 1940. All of continental Europe had been conquered by the Nazis and night after night, the great cities of that island nation were bombed by the Luftwaffe, Hitler’s air force. The British Empire stood alone against the Third Reich and expected a land invasion. The United States had not yet entered the War and there was no certainty that it would.

Virtually no one thought England would survive.

But Churchill did and the Nazis were defeated.

In October of 1941, still prior to the USA’s entry into the war, Churchill was asked to speak to the students of Harrow School, an independent boarding school that was his alma mater.

What he had to say applies quite well to those, even today, who might fear that worse is to come in their lives, as well as those who despair over their current condition.

Listen to the first three minutes and ten seconds and take heart.

The entire excerpt is just over four minutes long.

Once you click on the blue link just below this paragraph, look at the upper  right corner of the page. Then scroll down and click on the Speech #33 (incorrectly identified as having been given in November 1941):

BBC Winston Churchill Speech to Harrow School

The image above is Winston Churchill on Downing Street Giving His Famous ‘V’ (For Victory) Sign, June 5, 1943. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Learning From the Wrong Example: A Story of Five Teachers

Patricia Daley Martino and Peter Martino

For the most part I am grateful to my old teachers. By and large, they were an earnest and dedicated bunch.

Teachers like Patricia Daley Martino (pictured above with her husband Peter) were a treasure.

But I remember five with less kindly sentiments. Still, they did teach me something:

What not to do.

My very first high school science teacher laid down the law on the first day of class. And the “law” went something like this:

“I may make mistakes in marking your papers and grading your tests. You may be able to prove to me that I made those mistakes. It still won’t matter. I’m not going to change your scores or your grades no matter what you say.”

I can’t remember precisely what went through my mind when I heard this, but it was probably some version of “Is this guy nuts?”

What I learned from this man (whose son I knew in grade school, when he was already a juvenile delinquent in-training) was that power corrupts, and authority needs to wielded with a sense of justice, lest you become some sort of bully or dictator like my science teacher.

I also learned, in a practical way, that the famous quote from trial attorney Clarence Darrow is true: “There is no justice, in or out of court.”

But, I doubt that the teacher in question intended to instruct me in that particular lesson.

Still another high school science faculty member, a year or two later, took off a small number of points from a test paper because I didn’t put my home-room number on the page; or perhaps it was not in the right place, I don’t recall which. Since I was already “detail-oriented” he taught me nothing new about attention to small stuff. But, what I did learn was a lesson about nit-picking, something he was quite good at.

Going back to the primary grades, I observed a bad example displayed by two different teachers, one female, one male.

For reasons still unknown to me, both of these single adults, neither probably older than their early 30s, felt compelled to tell my class a bit about their dating lives. The man fancied himself a “Don Juan” type and indicated that he could easily have been married if only he wanted to. The woman, for her part, explained why it was that she was still single.

Who asked?

Should I have taken notes? What would they have said if someone queried, “Will we be tested on this?”

Even as a little kid, I thought to myself, “I’m not supposed to hear this.”

Finally, the teacher I had for music in the 8th grade told us all that she had been a famous opera singer, but for some reason had given up that career. Moreover, she offered that she had a stage name different from her current married name. What was it? She wouldn’t say. From time to time she would also rant about Harry Truman, who hadn’t been President for a number of years. She was, however, a heck of a good choral director.

Another case of kids being a captive audience. Too much information — the wrong information, I knew even then.

I suppose the moral of this story is that we learn equally from those who are good models and those who aren’t.

Teachers (and others) often don’t realize that the lesson they intend to teach is, in fact, not the one being taught.

On Sacrifice

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Would you like to know who you are? Then it is essential to know what is of real value to you. One way of finding that out is by asking the question, “What would I be willing to give up for something that I claim is important to me? What would I be willing to sacrifice for love, or great wealth, or power, or honor, or for my child’s well-being?”

What we are willing to sacrifice defines us, both as individuals and as a society. But first, let’s look at what the word sacrifice means:

The on-line Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition of the noun sacrifice:

1 : an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially : the killing of a victim on an altar
2 : something offered in sacrifice
3 a : destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b : something given up or lost <the sacrifices made by parents>
4 : loss <goods sold at a sacrifice>

Thus sacrifice involves loss and giving something up.

In primitive societies, it often included murder.

Human sacrifice was intended most often to appease a God, win the God’s favor, or avoid the God’s wrath. Igor Stravinsky wrote a famous ballet about this, The Rite of Spring.

More recent depictions of this sort of behavior have included Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 novel, The Visit. In this story a wealthy woman (Claire Zachanassian) returns for a visit to her home town, a place that has fallen on hard times. She departed in disgrace many years before when she was impregnated by her young lover. This person denied the charge of paternity and bribed two people to support his case by claiming that they had been intimate with her. Shamed by the townsfolk, Claire eventually turned to prostitution.

Her return home is noteworthy for a “proposition” she has for the town where her former lover continues to live as a respected businessman. She will bequeath an enormous sum to the hamlet if it will do one simple thing: put to death the man who caused her disgrace. In effect, the book asks the question of what this woman is willing to sacrifice for revenge (her money, her morality) and what the town’s people are willing to give up for money. The movie of the same name starred Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn.

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More recently, a very different sort of sacrifice is depicted in a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek TV series, The City on the Edge of Forever. While in an irrational state, the ship’s physician enters a time portal on an alien planet, one that takes him back to 20th century USA in the midst of the Great Depression.

At the instant that this happens, the Enterprise starship disappears from its orbit of the world on which the time portal exists. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, already on the planet in pursuit of Dr. McCoy, recognize that he must have altered history in such a way as to result in a universe in which their space vehicle never existed.  Kirk and Spock therefore enter the time portal themselves at a moment in history slightly before they believe that McCoy reached 20th century earth, in order to prevent whatever action he took that changed subsequent events.

While back in time, Kirk and Spock meet a social worker named Edith Keeler, who runs a soup kitchen for the down-and-out victims of the Depression. Soon, Mr. Spock uses his technological prowess to discover that Dr. McCoy will eventually have something to do with Edith Keeler herself.

In one possible historical thread, Spock finds a newspaper obituary for her. In another, however, he discovers that she will lead a pacifist movement that delays the USA’s entry into World War II, resulting in Hitler’s victory and the very alteration of events that prevented creation of the star fleet of which the Enterprise starship is a part. Thus, in order to create the more benign future known to the three officers, Edith Keeler must die.

There is only one complication. Captain Kirk and Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins) have fallen in love.

The climatic moment comes when Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk see each other across the street for the first time on 20th century earth. As they rush to reunite, Edith Keeler (on a date with Kirk), attempts to cross the street to join them, heedless of the fact that a fast-moving truck is headed toward her. The doctor attempts to rescue Kirk’s love, but is restrained by Kirk from doing so. Edith Keeler is killed.

The heartbreak is heightened by the incredulous McCoy’s indictment of his captain and friend: “I could have saved her…do you know what you just did?.” Unable to speak, Kirk turns away while Mr. Spock says quietly, “He knows, Doctor. He knows.” Thus, Kirk has sacrificed Edith Keeler’s life and his own happiness, to prevent her from actions that would have led to world enslavement by the Third Reich.

I have always been troubled that two of the most important biblical stories involve human sacrifice. The tale of Abraham and Isaac finds the former, the founder of the Jewish faith and monotheism, asked to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to prove his devotion to God. As he prepares to do this, an angel appears and stays his hand. A lamb is slaughtered instead. Rembrandt depicted this beautifully in the painting reproduced above.

Remember now, that I’m a psychologist. I cannot look at this painting without wondering what the child Isaac might be thinking and feeling in the aftermath of this moment. How will his relationship with his father be changed? Might there have been other possible ways of testing Abraham without permanently scarring his son?

The foundation story of Christianity poses a virtually identical dilemma, with the sacrifice of Jesus to pay for the sins of humanity. I fear that we are so used to abstracted representations of these events, that we have become inoculated against the trauma depicted by them and the human, societal, and theological implications of such horrors, reportedly authorized by God.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/45/Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg/500px-Michelangelo_Caravaggio_022.jpg

Of course, most of our sacrifices are much less dramatic. Do we give up eating what we might want in order to be fit and live a longer and healthier life? Do we brush off the attractive member of the opposite sex who “comes on” to us, in order to maintain our marital fidelity, avoid injuring our spouse and children, and keep whole our integrity? Do we sacrifice time having fun or attempting to climb the career ladder in order to go to our child’s boring orchestral recital and enduring hours of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played by tiny violinists, all of whom are out of tune?

I’m sure you can imagine many more such choices and sacrifices of your own.

We make decisions, all of us, about the question of national sacrifices too. Jobs vs. clean air, tax cuts vs. social services, giving to charity vs. keeping the money for ourselves, liberty vs. the promise of security, and most poignant of all, the decision of when war is necessary despite the sacrifice of the unlived lives of our young adult children.

Just as an exercise, you might want to make a list of all those things you spend time on that are inessential, all the things that you could live without if it came to something really important.

Or, still another exercise: if you could only take 10 things or 10 people with you to a desert island, who or what would they be and who or what would you leave behind? And what cause would be great enough for you to agree to go to a desert island in the first place?

Who are we as a nation? Who are you as a person?

We might know more about our country and ourselves if we first ask what we are willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice.

The top image is the Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt. The second picture, taken by Michael Gäbler, is of Adi Holzer’s hand colored etching Abrahams Opfer from 1997. Finally, Caravaggio’s version of the same scene Die Opferung Isaaks from 1594-96, sourced via the Yorck Project. All of the above come from Wikimedia Commons.